Donald Trump and the post-truth era

Ralph Keyes in conversation with Łukasz Pawłowski · 20 January 2017
“The point is that we lie and don’t feel ashamed about ourselves, we lie with a very little sense of there being any reasons not to – this is what I called a post-truth era.”

I have to say that after reading your book,  I no longer see Donald Trump’s victory as an anomaly, but rather as a logical consequence of how our society has changed. Would you agree?

Very much so. Donald Trump illustrates, rather than he is an aberration from, a post-truth type of society that has been developing for decades.

Do we have a biological predisposition to lie?

Yes, I think that we do have a predisposition to be deceptive. There are certain evolutionary advantages of being able to deceive animals, or potential enemies. The reasons keeping us from being deceptive are partly ethics, but even more importantly, living hand to hand with other people who would recognize when we lie. But since we now live in much larger environment, where people don’t know each other so well, they can’t recognize if someone they are dealing with is lying or not. On the Internet, we are so out of touch with one another, that we may not even use our actual name, we have a user name. All these things colluded to bring out our natural disposition to be deceptive, without the counterweights that we used to have.

Would you then say that we lie more often that our ancestors did?

I would say yes. I think that we are more unethical, we’re bigger liars than our parents and grandparents were. We live in the environment that doesn’t provide enough counterweights to our inclination to be deceptive.

We are bigger liars than our parents and grandparents were. We live in the environment that doesn’t provide enough counterweights to our inclination to be deceptive.

Ralph Keyes

When I discussed your book and the notion of post-truth with my colleagues at the office, their first question was, “What’s new about it?”. People have always lied, and you in fact give dozens of examples of late people we greatly respect, who were not who they said they were. Marilyn Monroe was once Norma Jean Baker and John Wayne changed his name for Marion Morrison to have a better chance at succeeding in Hollywood. No matter the times, everybody was trying to present themselves in a better light. What has changed now, with the victory of Donald Trump?

The point is that we lie and don’t feel ashamed about ourselves, we lie with a very little sense of there being any reasons not to – this is what I called a post-truth era. Donald Trump is simply the most exaggerated example of that tendency. I think that when he tells lies, which he does all the time, he doesn’t feel any sense of being dishonest. As he puts it, he’s engaging in a “truthful hyperbole”. If not being truthful makes him a winner, that’s all that matters.

Everybody lies, I understand that. What I don’t understand is that so many public figures you describe lie about facts which can be so easily verified, for example that they played in a university football team, or that they are Vietnam veterans. Why would a person engage in a lie that can be so easily discovered?

Because in a post-truth era it does not necessarily matter.

What do you mean?

People judge you on things other than your honesty. There are many politicians in this country who lied about their education or military record, but are not judged based on those aspects. To many Americans, it’s more important where those politicians stand on abortion, what’s their position on free-trade or on Obamacare. Those have become the most important issues and if somebody turns out not be entirely honest in the way they present themselves, as long as they have the right stand on these matters, their dishonesty will be tolerated. I disagree and don’t think that the degree of dishonesty we now have in public life should be tolerated. We are already paying a stiff price for it by having Donald Trump as our president.

You say that Americans may be particularly prone to lying because the United States is a country of migrants and also people move around a lot within it . They change places, they change communities so that they can make up their biography either upon arrival to the US, or upon arrival to a new community. What’s more, people are encouraged by the media to “reinvent themselves” once in a while.

“Reinvention” is a very popular and positive concept these days. When they move some place new, people might want to present themselves in a different light than they used to. Why not embellish the truth a little bit in the process? Polish up the image. You can say that you went to Harvard, when in fact you went to community college in Peoria, Illinois. Why not? Who will know the difference? So yes, because we, as Americans, have this migrant heritage, because we are so mobile, because we move so often, the temptation to present ourselves in a way that is not entirely truthful can be overwhelming.

But then one of the most important documents in American history, the Declaration of Independence, famously says: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights”. How can you reconcile the statement that the US is founded on certain truths with a post-modern world you describe?

Well, I think people would say that it is not the same thing. The truth that citizens have unalienable rights is not the same thing as telling you I got all A’s in college, while in fact I only got B’s and C’s. I don’t know if I necessarily agree with that. I believe you can’t overlook the factor of hypocrisy – we say we believe in truth and yet we don’t always honor it.

And you, personally, always do?

I don’t want to present myself as too self-righteous. I engage in petty lies. Who doesn’t? But I do try to at least recognize when I’m doing this. I think that the danger is when a person falls to a pattern of saying whatever is convenient, whether it’s true or not, without even recognizing they are doing this. That’s when I believe we begin to get in trouble. So what I try to say in the book is not that you should never, never lie. Who could abide by that standard? But, be conscious when you do, try to minimize the times when you aren’t being totally honest, and try to recognize what risk you take. Particularly with people you care about – members of your family and close friends.

The presidential election so exposed the amount of deception, we’ve been willing to swallow in recent years, that we begin to ask ourselves, how can we get out of it.

Ralph Keyes

At the end of the book you remind the reader that being untruthful is always very destructive to interpersonal relations and local communities. The ties between people are getting weaker, which makes lying even easier. But then we end up in a vicious circle – people lie more and communities become even more atomised. How do we get out of that?

I think Donald Trump may actually help people realise the need for being more honest. My book came out 12 years ago and attracted very little attention at that time. All of a sudden, because of Donald Trump, people are paying attention to it and “post-truth” is named the word of the year. There is now a lot of discussion, not only in the press, but also among ordinary Americans about what does it mean to be honest and dishonest. So I think we’re engaging in a very needed and helpful dialogue, one that we haven’t had in years. Trump is such a blatant example of one’s ability to be dishonest, that his victory forced us to take a look in the mirror and try to understand how we got to this stage.

But the fact that Trump gained so much popularity despite the fact that he lied on so many occasions seems to suggest people don’t mind being deceived.

His supporters would say that Trump’s dishonesty is less important than the fact that he is going to “shake things up”. And you’ll hear people say well maybe it takes somebody like him, who’s full of hyperboles and doesn’t always tell the truth. People say that they need change. And if it is introduced on the basis of untruths and exaggerations, so what?

Trump told many blatant lies during his campaign – for example when he said he never supported the war in Iraq, although we have a recorded interview in which he said he did. That’s obviously a lie. But then we have some harder cases. You write about journalists who sometimes – to make their story more interesting – attribute experiences of a few people to one person, or describe events which happened over a long period of time as if they all happened on one day. Are they lying or not?

Well of course it’s a lie! But they wouldn’t say so. They would claim they “rounded off the edges”, “created a higher truth”, or “got closer to the actual truth”. This is a very post-modern argument of course. And I think that post-modernists have a lot to account for in telling us that the absolute truth is not important, or even non-existent, that it’s all a social construct.

But you know what’s even worse? When  people engage in such practices, and they are caught, they don’t necessarily pay a price more than Donald Trump has paid the price. I have a saying I tell a lot: “If your guy tells a lie, it’s reprehensible. If my guy tells a lie, it’s understandable”. The way it’s played out has less to do with truth, than with the way you feel about the person who engaged in deception.

There’s an American historian, Doris Kearns Goodwin, very popular, who has written a lot of books, particularly on Abraham Lincoln and his cabinet. She was caught plagiarizing badly from other books of a less known author and had to admit. And yet she’s more popular than ever as an author and as a historian. There’s a man called Mike Barnicle who used to write a column for a “Boston Globe” and was caught making up people and quotations. Now he is a popular commentator on television. There are many other, similar examples.

In the book, you discuss the case of Jayson Blair, a “journalist” who during his time at “The New York Times” made up a few hundred stories. When he was caught, instead of being chastised, he signed a very lucrative contract for a book describing his experiences.

There were others like him who engaged in egregious deception and ended up with big book contracts and television appearances. It’s the same with Donald Trump. He would not admit it, but he clearly thinks that it does not matter whether he’s truthful or not. All that matters is if he’s paid attention to. And obviously he is.

But then you may say that a celebrity’s name – and Trump is definitely more of a celebrity than a politician – is a kind of brand and, like every brand, it needs a certain image. This image is constructed around stories which don’t need to be true. When you see a Coca-Cola ad for example, you know that those happy people in it are just actors. The same may be true for celebrities – they give us an image we want to see.

I would hope we have different standards of evaluation for our presidents than for products.

You claim that the era of post-truth “basically started with television” and then the emergence of social media facilitated this process of change even more. How can we get out of it, then? We can’t stop the technological progress.

I might be overly optimistic, but I think we are already getting out of it. This presidential election in particular exposed the amount of deception that we’ve been willing to swallow in recent years and we begin to ask ourselves how we can get out of it. It’s a very positive sign that both Facebook and Google have now accepted that there’s a huge amount of false information that’s been propagated on their sites and are taking steps to challenge that. Up till now, the dominant attitude was not judge the truthfulness of what people publish online. Now we’re beginning to improve that standards.

Do you really believe these standards can be changed for the better?

Two hundred years ago newspapers were much freer to say whatever they wanted to say and there was no fact-checking in the form we know today. Today fact-checking is more and more prevalent in newspapers and magazines. It’s now slowly coming to the Internet.

Donald Trump is going to be a disaster as a president in no small part because he’s going to be exposed more than during the campaign for his dishonesty. And this will force to us say “never again” can we allow such a dishonest person to become the most powerful man in the world. So, paradoxically, through all these negatives, I see something positive emerging.


*Featured image by Fixipixi. Source: Pixabay.com [CC 0]